Exploring Magical Consciousness

November 10, 2021
Art direction by Kristie Welsh / Deposit photos; Mandalafractal, Pxhere

What is the place of spirit possession, divination, and experiences perceived as “out-of-the ordinary” in our lives? How can we study and approach these types of phenomena?

Going beyond dichotomies such as body and mind, ordinary and extraordinary, reason and experience, and matter and spirit, the new series from the HDS Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR), titled, “Gnoseologies: Transcendence and Transformation Today,” hosts scholars of different disciplines and practitioners interested in exploring and expanding the boundaries of what counts as “knowledge” today.

The first event in the new series, “Exploring Magical Consciousness as a Form of Knowledge,” featured a discussion on “magic” with Giovanna Parmigiani and Susan Greenwood.

Parmigiani, who is the host of the new series, is Lecturer in Anthropology and Religion at Harvard Divinity School, and a research associate of the Transcendence and Transformation Initiative at the CSWR.

Susan Greenwood is an anthropologist specializing in magic as an altered mode of awareness, and her initial fieldwork among British pagans, witches, and shamanic practitioners. The author of many articles and books on magical consciousness, including The Anthropology of Magic (Berg 2009; Routledge 2020), Magical Consciousness: an anthropological and neurobiological approach [with Erik Goodwyn] (Routledge, 2017), and Developing Magical Consciousness: a theoretical and practical guide for the expansion of perception (Routledge 2020), her research focus is now on exploring alternative modes of knowledge through storytelling.

Below is an abridged version of their conversation. You can watch the entire event on the CSWR website.

Giovanna Parmigiani: Traditionally referred to as gnosis in Western philosophical and religious traditions, hence the title [of this new series], and often understood in contra-position to scientific epistemes, these ways of knowing are becoming more and more influential in contemporary societies, popular culture, and academic research. Susan, what do you think about the focus of this series?

Susan Greenwood: I think it's incredible. It's such a broad scope of practices, experiences right across the board—so many different ways of coming to understand the deeper aspects of life through mind, body, and spirit as well. And it's a delight to see so many different options really. I think it's so important to have all these different paths so that we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves in terms of body, mind, and spirit. By doing that, I believe that we're more in touch with dealing with the issues we face on a world scale, and on a global scale, in terms of the environmental crisis. I think by knowing ourselves, we are in a much better place to be able to work together in a way to deal with the wider global issues. And I think that's a really important issue at the moment that faces all of us.

I would like to say right at the beginning that the poet and artist, William Blake, has been a little bit of a mentor for me through the years with my academic work and some of the other work that I've been doing. And one phrase that he said is that revelation has to come before revolution.

It's like we have to make the internal changes before we can start thinking about what to do in social terms or environmental terms.

GP: So would you agree that what has been labeled as non-rational ways of knowing are very relevant today in our contemporary society?

SG: Absolutely relevant. My last project about developing magical consciousness was actually looking at mythologies and storytelling as a way of bridging communication between Western cultures that are largely rationalistic—which is a bit of a generalization— and Indigenous cultures, specifically Aboriginal Australians. I thought we could create a sense of speaking the same language through mythology. Because mythologies are the language of magic. I think it's really important that we can make those connections for all sorts of political and environmental reasons.

I do find that terms like “non-rational” aren't particularly helpful in this sort of work. The way that we describe magic and alternative forms of knowing is often within the terminology of the Enlightenment.

And the Enlightenment, of course, has kind of commandeered what is reason and what is logic and what is rational and what is irrational, so our discourses are framed within the irrational. We need to find a different sort of language to talk about much of this stuff.

GP: Those of us who have not read your work don’t know that “participatory consciousness” is your way of dealing with some of the things you just mentioned. Could you say more about this?

SG: I have to start from the beginning—on the understanding that magic is a legitimate form of knowledge, given the Enlightenment legacy, that magic as an alternative form of knowing is legitimate. But it actually works through a different process, and we cannot understand it through the lens of logic. So we actually need a different type of understanding, and I'll come to the bit about participation through that.

Because if we look at logic, which is the dominant mode of scientific thought, it's a sort of knowledge that converges and it creates categories and boundaries, and it also creates oppositions.

So you've got logic on the one hand. But the sort of magic and the sort of awareness that I'm talking about is analogical. This is a divergent type of thinking and feeling, actually. It's much more based on emotion, and it creates patterns. And these patterns are meaningful for the individual or the group.

And in terms of analogical knowing, it's very participatory. It creates those connections between spirit and matter. Spirit isn't cut off from matter; it brings it all together. That’s where participation comes in. It's one of the fundamental building blocks, really, of magical thinking. It's about thinking with things, making connections.

GP: What are some examples of what you experience in your field work, or what you've seen about participatory consciousness and magic as you lived in this particular way?

SG: Well, it started off when I was a PhD student. Although I had a lot of magical experiences, as part of my fieldwork I had to learn the very tricky process of navigating both types of identities.

But I also had to go deeper and deeper into the experience of magic. This was something that was really important to me, because I felt that there wasn't a lot of information at the time. You have to remember, we're going back quite a few years now to the 1990s, and maybe things have changed a bit now. I hope they have. It was very tricky to begin with to be able to negotiate the two identities. And I don't think I would have done it unless I'd had an awful lot of support.

Fortunately, I had two PhD supervisors at Goldsmiths who were absolutely fantastic. The first was the late Olivia Harris, and she held the space for me, the academic space for me, where I could go and become immersed in magic. I did a training to become a ceremonial magician, and I learned Kabbalah, and I had to do meditations every day and all of this sort of thing, and I had to totally be in it. But the thing that kind of kept me anchored was having to write notes from the field to Olivia every month, and that helped to ground me.

GP: How does participatory consciousness feel in your body?

SG: Participatory consciousness is quasi-universal. I think most people have the ability to experience it. I would like to explain it as on a spectrum of different levels.

On the one end of the spectrum might be where you might have a vague sense of connectedness, maybe through listening to music or poetry, or watching a film or looking at a painting or something like that, where you get a sense of something greater, but your actual sense of yourself is intact. You are who you are, even though you're feeling very open, expansive, and connected.

And then in the middle of this spectrum, perhaps there would be the form of participatory awareness that is shaped through a religious framework or a magical ritual, where there are certain sort of frameworks, boundaries. There might be prayers, meditations, where there is contact with a spirit or God or gods. But that contact is largely mediated or shaped within that framework.

At the other end of the spectrum is what I might call the specialist end, where you get people that are really into participatory consciousness. The classic example would be a shaman or healers or spirit workers, who actually lose their sense of self in terms of shape-shifting. So they might actually become the spirits that they work with.

And they do that for the community that they work for in order to help the community to resolve problems in a traditional sense—lack of food or someone's ill or something like that. They would have such a deep and intense relationship with the spirit world as much more material that they lose themselves.

But, of course, the most important part of that process is that they always can come home to themselves, because that's what makes them specialists. They can go out, but they also return. So I would say participatory consciousness feels different in different situations. But that's an explanation from an academic from a western perspective. If you went into a non-western, small-scale society, they would have a very different take on it, really.

But I would like to say that on a personal level, to move into the subjective, I would talk about the very first experience that I had of participatory consciousness in a shamanic workshop when I just started fieldwork. And the leader of the workshop put on a tape, a drumming tape, and we're all lying on the floor. And I thought, right, I’m going to have a journey, and we're told to find a hole to go down into it to find our spirit helper. And I thought, I must go down. I must find my spirit helper. Anyway, nothing happened, of course.

So the moment I gave up, I found my imagination going down this hole, and it was really tight, and it was quite nightmarish, and I felt all my skin being stripped off. And then my muscles, my fat, and I was just left as bones. And when I had eventually come to this state of being a skeleton, I met this owl, and I became one with that owl. And I felt what it was like to fly. I could actually feel the wind, the feathers of my wings.

And it was such a powerful experience for me. It kind of shaped how I saw all of my research, really. I still find that the shamanic aspects of magical consciousness are the ones that speak to me the most. It's that connection with the non-human world that I feel is so important today in terms of our ecological crisis. Because they become more like kin, and they have messages for us if we'll listen. So that was a really, really powerful experience.

GP: Thank you for sharing this personal experience. Was it scary? Did you feel afraid of the experience that you just had?

SG: When you're in it, it didn't feel scary. It just felt like the most normal thing to do. It was scary going underground and feeling trapped. I felt quite claustrophobic. But after that, the whole experience of losing my fat and muscles just felt like, well, yeah, that's what's supposed to happen.

GP: Could you talk about subsequent moments of participatory consciousness and your collaboration with Erik Goodwyn?

SG: Erik held the academic space for me. I was really trying to work out the process of mind, this participatory process of mind—what it is it that creates meaning? How do you get into this deep space where these things become really meaningful to you?

I went back into my childhood and constructed a synchronic, analogical picture, mainly through the mythology of the dragon and symbolism of the dragon. But Erik was fantastic, really, because he was a medic, a psychiatrist, but he approached me about writing a paper together. I read his book, The Neurology of the Gods, and it was like he gave me a key into a locked room.

There was all this information about neuroscience, but non-reductive. He was looking at feelings as being metaphorical connections in consciousness through mythologies, and it was a sort of a shared language which we could really relate to.

You would think coming from different disciplines, which are really quite different, that perhaps there would be lots of misunderstanding, but that wasn't the case. It was the easiest thing. We had lots and lots of conversations from our different perspectives, and we came to this non-reductive place in the middle, where we could actually both explore. And that was really exciting.

GP: Your abilities to experience magic in the way you just described to us were part of the conversation and the writing together of the book, right?

SG: Yes. He would prompt me to go into the deeper aspects of the dragon—because I was wanting to understand what the dragon meant.

It was a metaphor for some of the really deep experiences I'd had in the field, particularly working with some shamanic practitioners, where I had to sleep alone in a tent at the foot of this river at the bottom of Snowdon Mountain in Wales. The spirits of the river were so non-human, but they kind of taught me—it was a little bit like the first example I gave you of the owl. The spirits of the river just taught me about the raw, elemental side of nature. And it was what I later came to symbolize as a dragon.

I had to go back through my childhood, and I found all sorts of synchronistic connections that displayed to me and to Erik that this was the process of how our mind worked. Using a so-called “metaphor,” you could get into these deep emotions and feelings that were otherwise inaccessible.

GP: Do you want to tell us more about it?

SG: It totally fed into my aim to be able to create bridges of communication. This was my aim with my doctoral fieldwork, that I wanted a bridge of communication between academia and my informants.

And so I wrote an Encyclopedia of Magic and Witchcraft to try and make academic theories more accessible for the general reader. And at the moment now, I'm writing novels as a different sort of genre to try. I do think that stories are the way that we pass on information. And I'm trying to build up stories based on my own experiences.

But it comes back to William Blake, really, because William Blake has been a bit of a mentor for me in a way, that you work these things out through your own experience. And the imagination isn't just the imagination. It's a vehicle for a sort of a higher gnosis in his terms.

It's been really, really helpful for me to read about his work. And, of course, he was trying to show that there was different ways of knowing at the time when the Scientific Revolution was actually happening, and he could see that version of reason was getting a bit out of control. He was trying to find stories about bringing it back into some sort of balance. And I found that quite inspirational, really.

GP: Thank you so much for mentioning, again, the issues around communication and your project of writing narratives. I find it extremely fascinating.

I wonder, who is the imagined public for your work? What are the strengths and pitfalls of referring to childhood experiences, for example, as you do to talk about magic? What are your communicative intents?

SG: I've tried to communicate what I think is important in an academic way, but also trying to reach out to other groups of people. I think this aspect is so important, that these ways of knowing are taken seriously as valid forms of knowledge.

I have become a little bit of a shamanic anthropologist turned shamanic healer. And I find that by working in a shamanic way, it can be deeply healing to bring people back to themselves. And I think this is really important in terms of the sort of the mental health crisis that we're having at this time. I think there's so many ways that this participatory consciousness can be used.

And I just highlight one way, really. People like Donna Haraway, who are looking at different types of knowledge whereby there isn't seen to be one truth or one form of rationality, but it's more like a rhizome, that there are many different voices. And that's why your initiative is so important, because these voices need to come together.

GP: Thank you so much. I think this is a wonderful way to wrap up. Thank you so, so much, Susan, for being with us.

—edited by Paul Gillis-Smith, MDiv '24